John Laporte (1761–1839), after Walden Henry Hanmer (1761–1825), Cowthorpe Oak, 1806, hand-coloured soft-ground etching, Maps K.Top.45.41.2.

Remarkable trees

Christiana Payne explores prints and drawings in the King's Topographical Collection which depict celebrated and culturally meaningful trees.

Around 1800 there was a fashion for portraits of remarkable trees, both at home and abroad. Writers eagerly recorded the huge dimensions of particular specimens, and marvelled at their lifetimes spanning many centuries. They saw ancient trees as natural temples and emblems of aristocratic lineage. Poems were addressed to them, and they were revered as locations of important treaties and gatherings. Travellers came back with tales of exotic trees in far-flung countries. 

Two important books stimulated and reflected a general interest in arboreal matters. A new edition of John Evelyn’s Silva: or, a Discourse of Forest-Trees, published in 1776, exhorted landowners to plant more trees in order to supply the navy, while William Gilpin’s Remarks on Forest Scenery (1791) encouraged artists and their patrons to find trees and woods picturesque.[1] Both of these books included written ‘biographies’ of individual specimens.

Oak trees were especially valued, for practical as well as sentimental reasons. The slow-growing, dense timber of the oak, which conveniently grew in angular shapes or ‘knee-timber’, was the predominant wood used for warships. In 1796, William Marshall estimated that a 74-gun ship needed 2,000 large well- grown timber trees, of nearly two tons each, for its construction.[2] Most of these trees would be oaks. Between 1760 and 1835, private landowners are thought to have planted some 50 million trees.[3] Tree-planting became an especially important patriotic gesture in the years between 1793 and 1815, when Britain was locked in a protracted struggle against Revolutionary and then-Napoleonic France.

Gilpin begins his Forest Scenery with the bold statement: ‘It is no exaggerated praise to call a tree the grandest, and most beautiful of all the productions of the earth’.[4] His observations of the beauties of trees are extraordinarily perceptive and detailed, and include the forms of dead and dying trees, the variety of mosses on their trunks, and the roots that are visible above the ground.[5] He finds the felling of timber beautiful, as well as the timber-wain, ‘an object of the most picturesque kind, especially when drawn by oxen.[6]

Oak felling for ship timber: a view in the New Forest

John Hassell (1767–1825), Oak felling for Ship Timber: a view in the New Forest Hants., 1798, hand-coloured aquatint and etching, Maps. K.Top.14.84.a.

The New Forest was an important source of timber for Royal Navy shipbuilding

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John Hassell’s aquatint, Oak Felling for Ship Timber: A View in the New Forest, Hants was published in July 1798, just before one of Horatio Nelson’s most significant victories against France, in the naval Battle of the Nile. The scene is set in the New Forest, the area that inspired Gilpin’s Forest Scenery. The tree being felled is a mature oak tree, with a thick trunk, one that would be sure to provide the curved and angular pieces needed for the construction of a wooden warship. The print includes the timber-wain that Gilpin found so picturesque, though in this case it is drawn by horses, not oxen. Hassell produced a number of aquatints of agricultural and industrial processes in the countryside. His subjects include lime kilns, clay pits, copper works and slate quarries – pictorial evidence of a flourishing, productive land at a time of war.

Other ancient oak trees escaped the axe. Britain today has more ancient trees than other European countries, despite the fact that its tree cover in general is relatively sparse. One reason for this is the veneration accorded in the 18th and 19th centuries to individual specimens. This was summed up by Keith Thomas in the title of one of the chapters in his classic work, Man and the Natural World, as 'The worship of trees'.[7]

Old trees were associated with the Druids, much admired in this period as the original ‘ancient Britons’ who had supposedly worshipped the true God in woods and groves before knowing of Christianity. The Druids became embodiments of British patriotism because of their presumed resistance to the Romans. This significance was further underlined by their devotion to the oak.[8] For Horace Walpole, an old tree was a symbol of liberty, which in France would be appropriated by the King.[9]

An oak in Moccas Park

Benjamin Thomas Pouncy (–1799), after Thomas Hearne (1744–1817), Oak in Moccas Park, 1798, etching, Maps K.Top.15.101.a.

This ancient Herefordshire oak tree was dubbed ‘King of the woods’ in Richard Payne Knight's 1794 poem, The Landscape

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The old oak tree at Moccas, drawn by Thomas Hearne in 1789, engraved by Benjamin Pouncy and published in June 1798, was too ancient to be of much use for the navy. Its owner, Sir George Cornewall, came into possession through marriage of an old deer park, noted for its ancient oak trees, beech trees and Spanish chestnuts. Pouncy’s engraving is a portrait of one of the most famous of these trees. The young man sitting on the fallen part of the trunk may be intended to represent the son and heir, young George, born in 1774 and thus around 14 or 15 when Hearne’s drawing was made.[10] The oak tree no longer survives: recently it was estimated to date from c.1064.[11]

The letterpress follows an unacknowledged quotation from Gilpin’s Forest Scenery with a patriotic declaration:

The Oak is the first in the class of deciduous trees; and it is a happiness to the lovers of the picturesque that it is as useful as it is beautiful. … surely, no one who is a lover of his country, but, in addition to the pleasure which he has in contemplating this noble plant, must feel his heart glow on reflecting, that from its produce springs the British Navy, which gives our Island so honourable a distinction among surrounding nations.[12]

The inclusion of the heir, as David Morris has pointed out, stresses the continuity of past and present, and it also acts as a reminder of the young men who manned the country’s warships.[13] In addition, it suggests the idea of a family tree. Old trees were usually regarded as the sign of continuous family occupation over several centuries. Ironically, Cornewall himself had only been at Moccas since 1771, but he claimed to trace his descent from Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the second son of King John.[14] 

Old trees also inspired poetry. William Cowper, who was known for his love of trees, wrote his poem, The Yardley Oak in 1791 or 1792. It was left unpublished in his lifetime, and first appeared in print in the third volume of William Hayley’s Life of the poet in 1804.[15]

An east view of Yardley Oak

Robert Pollard (1755–1838), after James Andrews (–1817), East View of Yardley Oak, 1805, hand-coloured aquatint and etching, Maps K.Top.32.(37.)

The old Yardley Oak, now disappeared, is depicted by the poet William Cowper as a relic of history, a 'Survivor sole...of all That once liv'd' 

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The aquatint of the tree by Robert Pollard was published in January 1805, very soon after the poem became known. Cowper speaks at first of the ‘reverence’ with which he approaches the tree, and says that to worship it would be ‘idolatry with some excuse’ since our forefathers the Druids imagined sanctity in oak trees.[16] The passages inscribed below the aquatint stress that the oak tree would have produced timber for warships when it was in its prime:

...At thy firmest age

Thou hadst within thy bole solid contents

That might have ribb’d the sides, and plank’d the deck

Of some flagg’d admiral, and tortuous arms,

The shipwright’s darling treasure, didst present

To the four quarter’d winds, robust and bold,

Warp’d into tough knee timber, many a load![17]

Now, however, the tree is no longer ‘King of the woods’ but ‘a cave/ For owls to roost in'.[18] Cowper dwells on the physical characteristics of the ancient tree, which inspire sympathy as if it were an aged human being. The poem becomes a meditation on the passage of time and the inevitability of decay, a metaphor for life in general and human life in particular.

The inscription below the print states that the tree measures 22 feet 6.5 inches in circumference, and is ‘supposed to be upwards of 700 years old'. The modern opinion is that the Yardley Oak was a tree called Judith, said to have been planted by William the Conqueror’s niece, but in the early 19th century it was identified with another tree, known as Magog, which consequently became the target of souvenir hunters.[19] According to Gilbert Burnett, writing in 1829, ‘it has been attacked both with the saw and hatchet, and large fragments were continually being borne off in triumph, to be converted into snuff-boxes and other utensils, until the Marquis of Northampton, whose property it is, caused large nails and spikes to be driven into it’ in an attempt to preserve it.[20] Such indignities – which would surely have horrified Cowper – were inflicted on many of these ancient trees, an unfortunate by-product of the interest they aroused.

Another venerable specimen was the Cowthorpe oak, renowned as the largest, and one of the oldest, oaks in England.  Alexander Hunter, in his notes on Evelyn’s Silva, said it was larger than any of the oaks described by Evelyn: ‘When compared to this, all other trees are but Children of the Forest'.[21] As of 2011, it was said to measure 16 yards in circumference at a height of three feet from the ground. Today, it is regarded as the largest girthed English oak ever recorded in Britain.[22]

Cowthorpe Oak

John Laporte (1761–1839), after Walden Henry Hanmer (1761–1825), Cowthorpe Oak, 1806, hand-coloured soft-ground etching, Maps K.Top.45.41.2.

The Cowthorpe Oak in Yorkshire is depicted here by Sir Walden Hanmer: a member of the Society of Antiquaries, the Linnean Society and of the Horticultural Society of London

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The Cowthorpe Oak was depicted many times. It is one of only two trees illustrated in the 1776 edition of Silva, in a large fold-out page showing it in winter, from the north. The aquatint by John Laporte, dated 1806 takes exactly the same viewpoint but shows the tree in summer, with the local church in the background. The attached letterpress, referring to the illustration in Silva, says that since that time the tree has ‘made a rapid progress towards decay. About a dozen years since, its main leader, of immense weight, fell off, and by its crash alarmed the neighbouring inhabitants.’ The letterpress cites the tradition that the tree is ‘coeval with the Norman Conquest’, but in 1857 it was reckoned to be much older, around 1600 years old.[23] In August 1816, J. M. W. Turner made two detailed drawings of the tree, from both north and south, presumably intending to make a finished watercolour of it.[24] Early 20th-century photographs show the Cowthorpe Oak with a large number of supports, and it appears to have died in the 1950s.[25]

Philadelphia from the great tree at Kensington

Elm tree at right in the foreground, with five men standing on a wharf among cannons beyond at left, ships and boats moored near the harbour and view of Philadelphia in the background. Pasted on mount annotated on verso: 'Drawn by G. Beck / Engraved by J. Cartwright, London / Published Jan.y 1. 1801, by Atkins and Nightingale No. 143 Leadenhall Street, London, and No. 35, North Front Street, Philadelphia. / Philadelphia from the great Tree at Kensington under which Penn made his great treaty with the Indians'.

Under the branches of this elm tree, cannons can be seen by the Delaware River with the blossoming city of Philadelphia in the background

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In America, too, old trees were revered. William Penn concluded his famous treaty with the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indians under an old elm tree at Schakamaxon, now part of the city of Philadelphia, in 1682. The event was recorded many years later in a painting by Benjamin West, now in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Thomas Cartwright’s aquatint was entitled Philadelphia from the great Tree at Kensington under which Penn made his great treaty with the Indians. It was published simultaneously in London and Philadelphia in 1801, by publishers who had offices in both cities. By this time the elm was very venerable indeed, and had already lost a substantial branch. In the aquatint, the neat city, with its prominent churches and shipping in the bay, rises from behind the ancient tree like a vision of the future, protected by a guardian spirit. The elm was to fill this role for only a few more years. It fell in a storm on March 5 1810, and its wood was made into furniture and small keepsakes.

Hindoo temples at Agouree

View of Hindu Temples at Agori on the Son River

The Banyan tree is a symbol of the Trimurti, or the triad of the three gods: Vishnu is represented by the bark, Brahma by the roots and Shiva by the branches

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Compared to the familiar oak trees, the banyan trees must have seemed amazingly exotic to early travellers to India.  A banyan is a fig that starts its life by growing on another tree, or a building, gradually sending down roots and enveloping its host plant or structure. Thomas Daniell and his nephew William Daniell produced several views of banyan trees in their aquatints of India, made between 1786 and 1794. One of the most impressive, Hindoo Temples at Agouree, on the River Soane, Bahar, frames the stone temples with a huge mature banyan tree whose aerial roots have descended to the ground to create the effect of a forest.[26] The tree looks even more magnificent than the temples, and the perspective ensures that it dwarfs them in size.

In the letterpress to their aquatints, the Daniells noted that temples were placed under banyans in the villages they visited, and that Hindu temples are ‘exposed or half concealed among deep and solemn groves, no less holy in the popular opinion, than the edifices they shelter.[27]

The sacred nature of the banyan in India would have come as no surprise to readers familiar with stories of the Druids worshipping amongst oak trees in England. Mature trees were very necessary in this period to supply the navy, to produce the ‘wooden walls’ that defended the British Isles from invasion.  But they were much more than a source of timber: they were a focus for worship, repositories of history, guardian spirits. In advanced age, as their practical usefulness declined, they became more than ever objects of veneration and wonder.

[1] John Evelyn, Silva: or a Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty’s Dominions… with notes by A. Hunter (York: J. Dodsley et al., 1776); William Gilpin, Remarks on Forest Scenery, and other Woodland Views (relative chiefly to picturesque beauty) illustrated by the scenes of New-Forest in Hampshire (London: R. Blamire, 1791).

[2] N. D. G. James, A History of English Forestry (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981, 1990), p. 147.

[3] Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World. Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 (London: Allen Lane, 1983), p. 210.

[4] Gilpin, Forest Scenery, Vol. I, p. 1.

[5] Ibid, Vol. I, pp. 8, 10, 12, 19.

[6] Ibid, Vol. I, p. 267.

[7] Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World, pp. 212-223.

[8] Ibid, p. 111.

[9] Horace Walpole, On Modern Gardening (London: Brentham Press, 1975), p. 31.

[10] Hearne’s drawing of the tree (private collection) is reproduced in David Morris, Thomas Hearne and his Landscape (London: Reaktion Books, 1989), p. 99.

[11] Tom Wall, “A landscape of remarkable trees”, in Paul T. Harding and Tom Wall, Moccas: An English Deer Park. The history, wildlife and management of the first parkland National Nature Reserve (Peterborough: English Nature, 2000), p. 83.

[12] Morris, Thomas Hearne, p. 98.

[13] Ibid, p. 98.

[14] Jacob George Strutt, Sylva Britannica; or, Portraits of Forest Trees, distinguished for their antiquity, magnitude, or beauty, drawn from nature and etched by Jacob George Strutt (London: Colnaghi and Co, 1822), p. 19.

[15] John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp, The Poems of William Cowper, vol III, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980-95), p. 314.

[16] Ibid, ll. 8-9.

[17] Ibid, ll. 76-82.

[18] Ibid, ll. 50-52.

[19] Ibid, p. 315, citing Victoria County History.

[20] (Burnett), “Amoenitates Querneae”, in H. W. Burgess, Eidodendron: Views of the general Character and Appearance of Trees Foreign & Indigenous as connected with picturesque Scenery (London: J. Dickinson, 1827), p. 17.

[21] Evelyn, Silva, p. 500.

[22] Julian Hight, Britain’s Tree Story: the History and Legends of Britain’s Ancient Trees (London: National Trust Books, 2011), p. 28.

[23] Illustrated London News, Saturday January 31 1857, Issue 842, p. 83.

[24] J.M.W. Turner, Yorkshire 1 sketchbook, 1816 (Turner Bequest CXLIV, ff.10 v–11), Tate Gallery, London.

[25] Hight, Britain’s Tree Story, pp. 28-9.

[26] Mildred Archer, Early Views of India: The Picturesque Journeys of Thomas and William Daniell 1786-1794. The Complete Aquatints (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980), no. 74 and plate XIV.

[27] Archer, Early Views of India, commentary to no. 18.

  • Christiana Payne
  • Christiana Payne is Professor of History of Art at Oxford Brookes University and author of Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870, Sansom and Company, 2017.